Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Story of a Book Cover

When I decided to commit to indie publishing, one of the first things I did was to search for the advice of successful authors. I read their blogs, their ebooks, followed them on twitter, even connected with some of them via email. They gave me wonderful advice. I’ve been following most of it. One thing they all agree on is that book covers are hugely important. This shouldn’t be a big revelation. For years I’ve been telling my students that the aphorism, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is outdated. It comes from a time when books looked like this:

While we certainly shouldn’t make too much of our assumptions about a person based on their outward appearance, we can absolutely make judgments about a book when it is wrapped in an advertisement that is desperately trying to communicate information about the product inside. A good cover doesn’t necessarily mean the text inside will be the next Great American Novel, but the inverse is a safe bet; if someone didn’t bother to create an inviting cover, they probably also don’t care enough about the reader to put in the necessary effort on tasks most writers consider the drudgery of the process, things like revision, editing, and interior layout. 

So, if we accept this basic argument, it seems reasonable when all these experts advise indie authors to go out and hire someone else to design their covers. I hired an outside editor for my novel. I hired a web designer to help me create the website for the book. Why wouldn’t I hire a graphic designer?

But I didn’t. From the outset, I made a commitment to myself: If I tried my hand at cover creation and it came out looking like amateur-hour, I’d hire somebody to do it. I even wrote a projected expense into my business plan (yes, indie authors, you should take the time to write out a detailed marketing plan). Despite this commitment, I wanted to try my hand at it for a different reason. Sure, I want the book to be successful. That means different things for different authors, but for me it means getting it read by as many people as possible while covering my costs. I’m not quitting my day job. I’m a teacher. I love my day job. But that day job gives me a slightly different take on this process; I’m also trying to learn as much as I can about every facet of the publishing industry so I can share that knowledge with my students. So, beyond learning about query letters and agents and ebooks and ISBNs and the demise of the traditional publishing model, I thought I’d also try to learn something about cover design.

Here’s the story of how my cover evolved.

1. It starts out looking like this. The template is handy, and it reminds you that a book, when laid out, has the front cover on the right and the back on the left. It also makes it clear just how much of the cover could get sliced off when it’s printed so you don’t put any text too close to the edges. 

2. I downloaded a program called GIMP. It's essentially Photoshop, but free, and it's my new favorite computer program ever. I started with the part that would be the front cover. This will also be the only thing people will see when they are buying the ebook. That's important to remember. Robert Kroese, author of Self-Publish Your Novel, says the 1st rule of cover design is "Make the Title Bigger." I took that to heart.

3. You'll notice I used a portion of Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel for the cover art. Why? Because Michelangelo dead, so he can't send me a bill. The image is fair use. It's important not to use any copyrighted material on your cover. (There's a little legal trick with famous works of art. The work itself is fair use. Someone's photo of that image is, technically, copyrighted. So I would advise people to make sure they are using an image that can't be distinguished as a particular photographer's take on someone else's masterpiece. Is that ethically questionable? Maybe. I ultimately tweaked the image enough that I'll sleep fine at night.)

4. Then I noodled with that.

5.  I created parts separately before placing them on the template.
6. It started to come together. One key: Use models! I had a half a dozen of my favorite book covers sitting out next to me so I could see how those professional designers had done it. If it ain't broke...

(Be careful not to stretch or skew the barcode!)

7. Once I had a complete 1st draft, I posted it to my Facebook page to get feedback. I was actually hesitant about that. I wasn't sure it was entirely appropriate to impose on my friends in that way. In retrospect, I'm so glad I did it. It turned out that I had friends and friends-of-friends who were experienced designers, and the feedback I got was excellent.

 (I'm still embarrassed about a typo in the text on the back cover. I would have been a lot more embarrassed if it had made it to print.)

8. I went back and made the changes my friends had suggested. Then I posted it again and got even more good feedback.

9. Then I thought I had a finished cover, so I sent it off to the printer.

10. I bought a galley proof. If you are anything like me, the day you get to hold your novel in your hands will be a pretty big deal. If you are like my son, it will be a chance to photobomb your goofy dad. 

11. I went through the proof with a red pen and bloodied it mercilessly. This was a novel I'd edited some thirty times before turning it over to a pro, and I still found a misplaced comma or two. More importantly, I fixed layout problems. I can't recommend this step highly enough. Make sure you see what it will look like before you let it fall into anyone else's hands! Mine was full of interior layout errors that were nightmares to fix. Headers were too short or too long. Page numbers were incorrect or missing. That took the bulk of my time, but the cover needed a bit more work, too. I'd wanted the spine to wrap around to the front and back covers, but the printer thought it was just out of place and shifted the whole image a bit. Also, images on paper are darker than glowing images on a computer screen. I made the last fixes and sent it off for another galley proof. And I'll do it again, if need be. I'd rather buy 10 proofs and delay my advertised drop date (November 22nd. Mark your calendars) than have it look like a misprint. 

12. So, here's what it looks like now. The last few changes might seem too small to notice, but I agonized over every one, and I think that's the key. I want the cover to say, "I love this book, and I hope you will, too."

I suppose the moral of this story is contingent on your opinion of the cover. If you like it, this means you can create your own cover without hiring a pro, despite all the warnings to the contrary. If you hate it, you have been reminded why hiring a pro is such a good idea. Regardless, I hope it's at least clear that the process is ardous and worth taking seriously. 

Oh, and I'm still taking feedback if you've got any!

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